I’ve written a bit on this before, but it was early on in the pandemic. It feels like eons ago to me now; the shock of actually facing a pandemic – which, to me, still sounds a bit like an actual plague – was surreal. When the schools were closing, back before the stay at home order was originally issued, it seemed like a fluke. A blip on the radar before things would go back to normal.
Of course, I’ve always done what I was supposed to do. Actually, in mid March, I had only just come back to work after maternity leave, so I had a lot of good reasons to tread carefully and be extra safe. I wear a mask when I go out (which is almost never), and my family has been isolating at home all along. I don’t remember the last time I took the kids to the grocery store or anything like that! And, of course, we don’t have preschool or any other commitments, really; we’re just working from home and trying to make it all work.
Still, I’m not sure I realized it would go on so long. And I think that represents a lot of what’s happening in custody and visitation disputes right now, too. I keep hearing that parents had some arrangement or other, which worked for awhile, but suddenly people are furious; people are filing motions, people are making demands, and people are asking for things that they weren’t so worried about when this was just beginning, especially as it relates to custody and visitation.
It’s easy to make a sacrifice for a month or two, but, as time goes on, parents have decided that not only are they more comfortable taking some risks, they need to take those risks in order to maintain their relationships with their children.
Now, we’ve been on both sides of the argument. We’ve had clients who are immune compromised, or who have immune compromised kids, or who are just fearful of the virus itself, who want to keep their kids close and hold off on visitation until later. We have clients whose husbands or exes don’t take social distancing seriously, and can’t be trusted to follow recommended guidelines on masks and social distancing in public in order to keep the kids safe during their parenting time. We have clients with stepchildren and other blended family situations where the older kids are wreaking havoc and risking the family’s health. We have clients whose husbands or exes are doing everything they can to keep their kids from visiting them, so it’s the other way around!
It can happen in a million different ways. I’m not a public health expert or anything even closely approximating it. In most cases, neither are the judges. And yet, as the courts open back up slowly over the state, attorneys are being called on to make arguments about these things, and judges are being called on to make decisions about these things.
Is interstate travel allowed? By car? By plane? Does the destination matter? (What if your child’s father lives in NYC? Or Florida? Versus, say, Alaska? Does it matter whether the parents, children, stepchildren, or others are immune compromised, pregnant, or whatever?
Of course, in families where the parents are still involved, things are easier. It’s when the parties aren’t together, and when they disagree about what the appropriate course of action might be, that problems arise.
When you combine that with the fact that no one knows what’s going on, it makes for an interesting combination. We’re all just flying by the seat of our pants, trying to keep ourselves up to date with whatever the WHO and CDC and whoever and whatever else recommends. Wearing masks, standing 6 feet apart, grocery shopping as infrequently as possible, whatever.
There are as many schools of thought about what to do as there are things that people are actually doing. There are those who feel any infringement on their freedom is unacceptable; that they should go on with life as usual. Some even believe that COVID-19 is a conspiracy for the government to seize control. Others are more moderate, and just follow the advice of the WHO, CDC, and local governor’s recommendations/regulations. Others want to stay at home, isolate completely, and stay out of any public spaces.
Some of us are naturally more or less cautious, and that includes judges. Unfortunately, we haven’t had a chance to go in front of many judges so far and litigate these issues, so it’s hard to gauge exactly how each one would react. Should you send your kids to visitation? I mean, I don’t think it’s fair to withhold them completely, without exceptional circumstances. If you do withhold them entirely, I think it’s probably best to talk to an attorney before you make the decision, but you should also be prepared to offer alternative activities – Skype or FaceTime, or even in-person visitation outside if you fear that he hasn’t socially distanced appropriately. If visitation would require the child to travel, you can offer visitation if HE travels to you. Maybe you even offer to let him stay in your house – but, then again, that may not be possible or appropriate, depending on the circumstances.
There are options out there to try to keep your kids safe, to allow the kind of visitation that will demonstrate to the court that you’re not trying to unreasonably withhold ALL visitation, but also recognizes the difficulty inherent in navigating these difficult circumstances.
It’s not easy! But the best thing you can do is to work with an attorney to come up with a game plan that takes into account your family’s specific needs and minimizes any potential trouble with the court later on. For more information, or to schedule a consultation, give our office a call at 757-425-5200.